Next time there will be more mingling with other passengers. A FEW cold cuts for breakfast today, along with omelets served hot in their metal pans and a drink somewhere between yogurt and buttermilk that one either likes a lot or doesn't.
We're traveling from Mongolia to Siberia, and by tonight we'll be in Irkutsk. Beautiful green expanses between the no less beautiful birch groves.
Next time I will try to mingle more with passengers on the cars we pass through from our American island to the diner. We do talk with a Chinese couple paying a return visit from America -- who in this small world know someone in New York who has written about Asian art in this newspaper. And there are plenty of smiles and nods as we squeeze past Chinese families in the corridor or lurch through their open compartment doors toward the complete meal service they have brought with them. But it's not like saying hello on Amtrak and hearing someone's whole life history between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
I try to use music to say hello. We've been advised that tipping is not encouraged in China and the Soviet Union, but small gifts are OK. A couple of Chinese guides seemed pleased to accept cassettes of American jazz. But, when I stumble onto the cubicle of the train's music programmer, I can't persuade him to take a cassette of the superb clarinetist Buddy De Franco with a swinging band. He keeps pointing to his big reel-to-reel tape deck.
I hear an offer of help in English, and a lovely young Chinese woman explains to him that the cassette is not intended for the train but for him personally to take home. Big smile, shaking of hands, and Buddy's ready to be heard in the land where we've heard such wonderful sounds of flutes, strings, gongs, pipes of Pan, and drums reconstructed from the Tang Dynasty 1,200 years ago.
Tonight, in Irkutsk, the sound is different. An a cappella chorus of 30 mixed voices. We hear them as we sit on backless benches of natural wood in a pristine old church that has become, like so many in the Soviet Union, a museum.
It is probably provincial to note that the young women singers, in their white blouses and black skirts, display the same variety of hair styles as in an American group. But, in the declamatory Russian of the young woman who announces the selections, the names of works by Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and Glinka sound like a call to the barricades. And, when two bass soloists come to the front and raise their voices, the glorious resonance almost lifts us off our bench.
Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor. Tomorrow he goes backstage after a bourgeois comedy and witnesses a hand-kissing.